DNA of sex offenders being tested in cold cases

There's a new effort to find cold-case killers and rapists, including whoever was responsible for the rapes and murders of Michella Welch and Jennifer Bastian back in 1986.

Quick facts:

  • Murder investigations from 1986 getting new look.
  • DNA from sexual violent offenders collected.
  • Offenders had been committed, but not initially required to give DNA.

There's a new effort to find cold-case killers and rapists, including whoever was responsible for the rapes and murders of Michella Welch and Jennifer Bastian back in 1986.

Twelve-year-old Michella and 13-year old Jennifer both were riding their bicycle alone near Tacoma parks when they were abducted and murdered. Michella, whose body was found in Puget Park, was killed in March of 1986. Jennifer, who was found in Point Defiance Park, was murdered that August. Both girls were sexually assaulted, and police believe the same man is responsible for both murders. 

But even though investigators distributed a composite sketch of a man on a bicycle seen following Jennifer the day she disappeared, no suspect has ever been identified.

Pierce County native Lindsey Wade was 11-years-old when the girls were murdered. Wade is now a detective with the Tacoma Police Department working cold cases, including the two murders she's never forgotten. 

"It was really the first time I can recall hearing about something in the news that was particularly terrifying to me," Wade said of the two cases.

While looking into the 1999 disappearance of 2-year old Teekah Lewis, Wade learned that the DNA of 36 residents of the Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island – the facility that houses our state's civilly committed sexually violent predators -- had never been collected and processed because they committed their crimes before state law made DNA collection from sex offenders mandatory in 1990. 

Wade told KIRO 7's Amy Clancy she was surprised to learn that the DNA of those long-imprisoned serial rapists and sex offenders was not in any database that would allow her -- or other detectives -- to solve other cold-case crimes. 

"I was shocked, I was really surprised," Wade said. "These are pretty much our state's worst of the worst, in my opinion, when it comes to sexually violent predators." 

So with money from a federal grant, Wade was able to collect all the SCC residents' DNA, have it tested, and entered into the crime-fighting database called CODIS.

In the process, Wade solved the murder of 19-year-old Susan Lowe.  

The DNA of Michael Halgren -- civilly committed to McNeil Island since 2002 -- was a match to the DNA evidence found at Lowe's Bellevue apartment, where she was raped and strangled back in 1980. 

"It was very satisfying," Wade said when asked about solving the Lowe cold case. "It's one thing to read about a case on a piece of paper, and maybe look at news footage. But it's another thing to actually meet the family and recognize what kind of impact you've made on their lives."

Patty Bastian hopes to someday have the same satisfaction as Susan Lowe's family. Even though the DNA of McNeil's SCC residents didn't match that of her daughter's killer, there are 20 other states with civil commitment laws.

Bastian hopes detectives in those states will also make sure that all DNA is collected and tested, like Detective Wade did. 

"She's clever," Bastian said of the woman who won't give up on her daughter's murder investigation.  "I think it's going to take someone really, really clever to ferret out" who's responsible for the murder of her daughter and Michella Welch.

Clancy:  "So you still have hope?

Patty Bastian:  "I do have hope. I have more than hope. I have surety. I know they are going to solve it."

Because the DNA from all the residents at McNeil didn't lead to Jennifer's and Michella's killer, Detective Wade also had the DNA of sex offenders at Western State Hospital collected and tested. No link to the girls' murders has been found so far, but both Wade and Bastian believe there is a match, if not here in Washington state, then somewhere.

Want to talk about the news of the day? Watch free streaming video on the KIRO 7 mobile app and iPad app, and join us here on Facebook.